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Helping Injured Wild Animals: Ethics and Legality

Aug 17, 2007
Caring for wildlife presents many challenges. Veterinarians are seldom familiar with the biology or veterinary care of most of the wild species that are presented to them for examination and treatment. This is compounded by the fact that there are often strict laws governing the protection of wildlife species which must be abided by, not to mention the numerous ethical dilemmas.

Are vets duty bound to deal with wildlife casualties?

Over the last 20 years, the attempted rehabilitation of injured wild animals has become widespread. Many of those involved are members of the public with varying levels of experience and training. Veterinarians have often assisted in such activities to some degree, and there are several reasons why this occurs and will continue despite the usual absence of any financial remuneration.

Many vets do not mind offering their assistance because:

1. Professional ethics dictate that a veterinarian should provide attention to an animal of any species in an emergency.
2. Legislation in some countries specifies that only a registered veterinarian can carry out certain tasks, making the profession obliged to provide a service.
3. Treating wildlife can be good publicity for veterinary practices, via local newspaper articles and TV or radio mentions.
4. As more and more studies reveal links between pet and wildlife diseases, knowledge of wildlife is increasingly important if vets are to understand the transmission and pathogenesis of certain diseases.
5. Some vets enjoy the challenges of treating wild animals, adding variety to their day and providing a feeling of altruistic satisfaction.

What are the ethics of treating wildlife?

Potential issues include:

Does the rescuer know enough about the biology and natural history of the species to be able to fulfil all its dietary and husbandry needs?

Does the rescuer have suitable facilities to keep the animal in, not just in the emergency period but also at a later date during recovery, when the animal might need more space and become difficult or dangerous to handle?

Could the animal pick up an infection during captivity that it could then transfer to other wild animals on release?

Does the animal have good long term prospects? Will it be able to return successfully to the wild, as the law often requires, or will it have to remain in captivity?

If the animal has to remain in captivity forever, is this against its welfare interests and is the cost of long term care feasible? Remember, an animal born in captivity is completely different to one accustomed to the wild and then forced into captivity due to injury. Though usually an unpopular decision with the general public, often euthanasia at an early stage is the most humane action a veterinarian can take. Euthanasia is the sensible option if the veterinarian decides that the needs of the animal cannot be satisfied, and if there are no alternative options such as local wildlife rehabilitation centres.

The success of rehabilitating an injured wild animal is measured by whether they are able to prosper when returned to the wild. However, this in itself is impossible to measure. Numerous animals have been released back to their habitats over the years, but their fates remain a complete mystery.

What are the legal implications of treating wildlife?

The first point of note is that the law regarding wildlife rehabilitation is changed from time to time, and it is important to be aware of the current law. The law also varies between countries, for simplicity any laws referred to below are those currently valid in the UK.

Animals injured on protected land, or in a restricted area, might require a permit to be obtained before the rescuer is allowed to take it. Taking game species requires the landowners consent, to avoid accusations of poaching. An animal may only be taken if it is sick or injured, and only kept until it is no longer disabled. An animal may only be killed if it is too ill or badly injured to stand a reasonable chance of survival.

Catching the injured animal can itself be a feat. Certain traps are inhumane and illegal, while other methods such as nets and firearms require authorization.

Transporting a wild animal has certain legal requirements, namely that the animal must not be caused unnecessary suffering or injury while being transported.

A written record should be kept detailing the circumstances of the rescue and ownership, and this should accompany the animal wherever it is transported to.

Generally the person looking after the rescued wild animal does not need a license to do so. However, certain animals do require registering with the local environmental governing body. Some birds must be ringed and some dangerous animals, such as venomous snakes, require special licenses. Veterinarians usually have a 6 week period during which they can hospitalise an injured animal that would normally require a license, before they are required to apply for one.

There are also rules governing the type of intervention allowed, according to the level of training. While lay persons are permitted to give first aid in an emergency, only veterinarians are allowed to give medical or surgical treatment.

Many countries have laws concerning the care for an animal once it is in captivity. Usually a bird must be kept in a cage large enough for it to be able to stretch both its wings fully.

The laws regarding the release of wildlife necessitate careful deliberation of all the health, welfare, ethical and legal aspects. A balance has to be struck between the legal obligation to release a casualty if it is fit, and risking the accusation that the animal has been abandoned if it is not quite fit enough.
About the Author
Dr Matthew Homfray is one of the veterinary pet experts at www.WhyDoesMyPet.com. Our dedicated community of caring pet experts are waiting to offer you advice, second opinions and support.
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